Our new blog series “Rising Stars” pairs current students with alumni who share similar interests and who are making great strides in their careers. Samantha Skarin (’17), who will be a summer 2016 intern at Amazon, interviews Charlotte Baxter Maines (’13), principal product manager at Amazon. Here, Maines shares insights into how she leveraged Anderson resources to transition from real estate to tech, quickly rose through the ranks at Amazon, and landed the unique opportunity to present to CEO Jeff Bezos during her summer internship.
Before Anderson I was a real estate developer, and one of the reasons that I went to business school is I knew that I wanted to get into tech. As a real estate developer you’re very much a project manager, quarterbacking these big (in my case) hotel development projects. You spend two years, 20 million dollars, really going all the way from finding the empty land to having fully stamped and approved architectural plans, approved by the city council and engineers. That whole process involved managing something from A to Z, which I really enjoyed, but the real estate industry itself and being in that space wasn’t my passion — whereas I was really interested in tech. I decided to go to business school in order to facilitate that transition.
I went to Anderson because it is a great school, it’s on the West Coast, there are lots of good things about it. When I got there I just really dove in immediately trying to make that transition to tech, which was a little bit tricky. There are a lot of things on your resume when you’ve been a real estate developer for seven years that don’t really jump out to tech companies when they’re trying to decide who to interview and who to talk to for a summer internship. That’s why it’s great at Anderson to be able to leverage the career nights, the things that the clubs are doing and the tech treks. Anderson is a top school that tech companies come to for recruiting. You get the chance to make connections with employees who are currently working there and that helps facilitate getting interviews.
Q: How did you land at Amazon? What is your role there?
I accepted an offer with Amazon for a summer internship as a product manager and spent the summer working in the Kindle group. The project that I worked on entailed building an upgrade strategy for e-readers and tablets - looking into who Amazon’s customers are who buy multiple devices and finding out why they’re buying multiple devices. Are they buying e-readers for additional family members? Are they breaking old ones and getting new ones? What’s happening there? So that’s what I worked on, but what actually ended up happening is, it was close to the launch of our generation five e-readers and tablets and the whole team was really swamped with launch activity. At the last minute, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a request for something he wanted it to be able to announce as part of launch, so of course it had to get spun up very quickly. The team looked around and said, “Well, we’re all completely buried trying to launch these products but we have this intern, and we think it would be a better use of her time to work on the Jeff ask rather than work on upgrade strategies, so we’ll put her on it.” I actually ended up presenting to Jeff during my summer internship…which was pretty crazy, but exciting.
When I got the full-time offer to come back, I also looked at other companies, but ultimately Amazon had been such a great experience and a great fit that I decided to come back as a product manager. I’ve been here for almost three years. I’ve been a product manager on Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick for the majority of my time. I launched all of those products as the launch PM, as well as the owner of the P&L, the demand generation drivers, and the product detail pages. I recently transitioned to a new role where I am a technical product manager in charge of building a new product. You could say I’ve fully made that transition from real estate to tech now that I have my own team of engineers!
Q: You were promoted from senior product manager to principal product manager a year and a half after your graduation. What do you think has contributed most to your quick rise in the company?
At Amazon there isn’t a specific playbook, or boxes you need to check to get promoted. We’re pretty flat, so people tend to stay at each level for a while and you end up developing quite a body of work at each level. This is also why it can be a bit difficult to point to a formula or strategy. I think in my case in particular, it helped that I was working on a super high-visibility product like Fire TV that has been so fundamental to one of Amazon’s biggest businesses, its devices.
I think I was handed a good opportunity, and I think where I was able to turn that into a success and a fast promotion is that I really dove in and took ownership of it. You have a roughly defined scope of work that you’re working on — like, in my case, it was all about owning the launch and tying together a lot of different teams to make sure that we had everything squared away in order to sell the product and have the best customer experience possible, have the plans in place to pull demand levers and respond to customer feedback.
The way it was explained to me about how I went above and beyond was because I jumped in. Hardware products have a lot of folks working on them, all the way in China there are people working on them; there’s Lab 126, where the engineers reside down in California, there’s the senior management team and Jeff, who have input and need constant reporting. So there’s a lot of big, interested players, and a big team — and the feedback I got was that I dove in and connected all of those players in the right ways, such that I was able to facilitate improvement and drive change on things that we needed to do in order to have a better product and customer experience. They told me, “We can point to reasons that Fire TV and Fire TV Stick are better products because of you, and that was well outside of the scope of your role as the launch PM and P&L owner.” If you look under the hood on that, what that was is diving in and not being afraid to work really hard but also step up and guide the meetings, pull people together, not be intimidated by seniority or tenure or anything like that. If there’s a need for anything that I think is going to make the experience or the product or the purchasing experience better for customers, I don’t let anything get in my way to make that happen. And that is something that is very important at Amazon. I think that’s how it all came together.
Q: What resources at Anderson were most helpful to you in making the transition to tech?
Anderson was invaluable in enabling me to make a full industry and function switch. From the very beginning, I acknowledged that a lot of work needed to be done and that I wasn’t sure what it was. I had to go and see what resources were there and be proactive about making the time. Beyond that it was very much the input and the time provided largely by the folks at Parker Career Management Center. My advisor was David Cooley, who is now in the alumni group, and I was in his office for an allotted hour every week, plus additional time that he made for me. In the very beginning it was, let’s talk through what I really want to do in tech. What does that mean? What companies should I be targeting? What are the skill sets and strengths that I bring from my previous careers? And then it was the painful exercise of taking a resume that was filled with real estate acronyms and turning that into something that someone from a tech company wouldn’t look at and immediately throw into the “we don’t need to talk to them” pile. So that was a really arduous experience but I got through that.
There are also a lot of other resources, whether it’s the club events or mock interview sessions. I took advantage of the fact that the consulting association (MCA) brings in experts who will help you practice consulting cases. Even though tech cases aren’t as intense and structured as consulting cases, it’s still great practice. Going on in the background, in addition to working on how I present through my resume and interview, there’s also what you do to actually be able to connect with the companies.
Anderson is a top-tier school that brings in all of the companies you could possibly want to work with in tech and lots of other industries. They come to campus and do presentations and they make time for informational chats, they’re willing to host us on tech treks, and they send folks back out for career night. Those were all the ways I built relationships that enabled me to get interviews and get a chance to talk to the tech companies and let them know that I had a skill set that’s very translatable to product management, even though it may not look like that on paper. I was paired with someone in Amazon’s on-campus “office hours” with whom I had a good connection and he thought that I would be a good fit. I continued to build that relationship. When I came up to Seattle for the tech trek, I took him out to coffee. He told me later on that he had walked into the resume debrief late and looked at the pile of rejected resumes and saw mine. And he said, “No, no, no! We have to talk to her, I’m convinced she would be an amazing product manager.” And they said, “Well, she didn’t really seem to have relevant experience.” He was, like, “No, we’re talking to her.” And then the interviews happened and I got an offer. It was because of that relationship, and I would not have had that relationship if it wasn’t for the opportunities that Anderson provided for us to interact directly with the employers. I think the resources there are invaluable.
Q: What has been your favorite experience at Amazon?
There have been a lot of good experiences. I joined in August 2013, and we launched Fire TV in April 2014. At the time, no one thought of Amazon as a device business. We had e-readers and tablets, but were thought of as “the shopping website.” Though some people still may think of us that way, we’ve definitely expanded our scope in a very public way. At the time, Fire TV was a total sleeper. No one expected that from us. And behind the scenes, it had just been such a herculean effort, pulling everyone together and getting it out the door.
So that morning we’re in the launch room, and we did a launch press event. Our VP of devices went on stage in California in an auditorium full of reporters who had been invited to the event — and they just thought he was doing an update on the tablet business and Amazon Video. This is not something people were expecting and, miraculously, we hadn’t had any leaks. He was up there on stage and talking for about 10 minutes about this other stuff and we’re live-streaming it in the war room as we’re actually taking the product live. And he does this thing where he reaches around behind this table and turns back to the audience holding up this little box, which was a Fire TV, and he says, “And today we’re excited to introduce Fire TV.” And all of a sudden, I just burst into tears in the middle of the launch room.
I quickly wiped them away and got back to business — because at that very moment we had to start taking orders and everything went crazy. But I had been so passionate about what I was doing and just poured so much of my heart and soul into that product, that was my genuine reaction when it was launched. We work hard here, but the great news is, you really feel like you’re contributing in ways that matter.
Q: We’ve heard a lot about the lack of women in tech, and in some cases negative treatment of women in the industry. What has your experience been and do you have any general thoughts and advice for women going into the field?
There are definitely more men than women working in tech, but on the flipside, there might be a difference in West Coast mentality. I came from the East Coast and was at an investment bank and then a real estate company. The real estate company was very much an old boys club and I was always super aware of the fact that I was female. Just in the way that I was treated and the roles and responsibilities that by default I was expected to take. You’d be in a meeting and someone would turn to you and ask you for coffee in the middle of the meeting. And you’re, like, “I’m here participating in this meeting – I’m pitching a deal. What are you talking about?” You go into tech and stuff like that never happens.
I’m not saying there are no issues or no differences between men and women in tech, but I do think, at least coming from the background that I described, for me tech is super refreshing. I do not feel when I’m in meetings — whether it’s my meeting that I’m driving or I’m a participant in — I never feel like I’m being viewed in a different way because I’m a woman. It’s very much about what you bring to the table. Are we driving the right discussions? Is the right data in the doc? That’s what matters. It doesn’t matter whether you’re female or male. So that’s the positive. At least that’s been my experience at Amazon, where I do not feel like I’m being viewed or treated differently as a woman.
In terms of tips and tricks, the way Sheryl Sandberg says it is, “Always take a seat at the table.” And I think what that means is, make sure you’re never selling yourself short because you’re a woman. No apologies, no doubting, don’t just sit quietly on the side. Be fearless and don’t second-guess yourself or think that being a woman means you need to accept or handle a professional situation differently. It’s up to you to define who you are.